The Wallaby & The Python by Alexis Kale

Random story 11.11.5, from Coe Reviewhere’s the link.

If a story consisted entirely of its story, this one could be collapsed into about three sentences. Gulp it down in one bite, move on to the next one. But does the reader owe the author a degree of leeway, of respect, of trust? Ignore the setup and the punchline, let the non-story wrap itself around you, absorb you into itself.

It must be acknowledged that sometimes the non-story turns out to be window dressing, a seduction, a distraction, a setup, lulling you into submission until bam! the punchline swallows you whole.

 

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Rattle and Spin by Jeanette Sheppard

Random short fiction 5.7, from Bare Fictionhere’s the link.

Forget about the test. In fact, don’t call it a test. But we both know that the test must be administered. We’ve scheduled the test, the essential personnel are assembled in this room. My freedom to act, to assume my role as proxy, depends on the results. On failure. In this room on the wrong day of the week, in the wrong season, in the wrong city, and what were those three objects again? Empathize too little and you dehumanize, too much and you too start to rattle and spin, failing by proxy. Do you entertain the possibility that the sensations I summon vicariously from another’s past, the sights and sounds, the tastes and feels and smells — that they persist outside of memory, now and in this room, needing no words to name them, to align them in place and time, to embed them in meaning, to bring them to life? No? Very well, then please begin.

Writing appears to be necessary for the centralized, stratified state to reproduce itself…. Writing is a strange thing…. It seems to favor rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of mankind.

The quote from Claude Levi-Strauss comes from the frontispiece of James C. Scott’s 2017 Against the Grain, a book I’d reserved at the local library and went to pick up yesterday. I put the book in my car before heading out for a walk through the schoolyard across the street. At the far back corner I saw a man approaching me along the oval running track: I waved, he returned the wave. I had veered left, behind the dugout at the baseball diamond, when I heard the man call out to me from behind. Approaching him I saw that he was wearing a sheriff’s uniform. Politely he informed me that I couldn’t walk on the school grounds until the kids were finished with extracurriculars. There were no kids to be seen on any of these playgrounds. New security precautions for the new school year. Thanks for letting me know, I told the sheriff; I’ll walk over to the graveyard, they’re probably done for the day. Smiling, he owned that maybe they’d appreciate some company over there.

I tend to pay attention to the very new headstones, the ones where the grass hasn’t yet fully merged with the landscape, and the very old ones. It took a minute to decipher the pitted engraving on a stone from the 1930s. The man buried there had been born in 1848, the epitaph noting that he had been in an N.C. regiment of the C.S.A. Established in 1861, the Confederate States of America dissolved four years later with the end of the War Between the States. The man buried in this plot would have been a 17-year-old boy when somehow he’d made his way back home from the battlefield or the prison camp or the field hospital — no telling how long he’d already soldiered. Before he died had the old man specified that his war service be commemorated on his stone, or was it commissioned by the next of kin as a recognized mark of honor on an otherwise undistinguished life?

I thought about the perplexing short story I’d read and posted on the day before. It began with a young couple jumping together off a bridge. Maybe all of the hallucinatory fireworks that followed had been another occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Ambrose Bierce, born 1842, enlisted in the Indiana infantry, fought for the Union at Shiloh, sustained a serious head wound at Kennesaw Mountain. In late 1913 a 71-year-old Bierce took a tour of Civil War battlefields. Beginning in D.C., his pilgrimage took him through the South to Louisiana and Texas, crossing into Mexico at El Paso. In Ciudad Juarez he joined up with Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, witnessing at least one battle in the Mexican Revolution. The day after Christmas Bierce posted a letter from Chihuahua to a journalist friend and former lover in San Francisco: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” Bierce was never seen or heard from again, his disappearance occasioning an official investigation and no end of speculation. Skeptics doubt whether he ever sent that letter, deeming it a likely fiction invented by the recipient. There is no irrefutable evidence that Bierce ever crossed the border into Mexico, ever rode with Pancho Villa: that escapade too might have been a fabrication, a story, a legend.

The man buried in the Durham graveyard: had he told his wife and sons about the War? The smell of gunpowder and gangrene, the staccato and roar of the battle and the groaning and weeping of its aftermath, the taste of dirt, the pain and fatigue and numbness, the endless movement and endless waiting, the boredom punctuated by terror and horror. Or, like the men I’ve known who had been to war, did he, save for heavily edited travelogues and amusing anecdotes, maintain his silence to the end? Where for the next of kin does duty lie: to the eulogy, or to silence?

The Singing Tree by Shawn Goldberg

Random story 48.4.4, at Tulane Literary Reviewhere’s the link.

The fuck?

The girl and the man jump off the bridge. The Tree, a cover artist that doesn’t take requests. Their baby, America, a cyclops. America’s baby, Gadsden, don’t tread on me, weds his true love Cathay, China. All dead in the end but Gadsden and the faerie Tree. Grand finale, New Year’s and the Fourth rolled into one. Bravo! the heavenly host erupt; encore! they demand. Curtain call, Cathay dressed as the Statue of Liberty, Gadsden watching himself as a child in blue tuxedo and top hat tap dancing.

We are currently open for submissions, the magazine’s home page announces. Out now! it exults over its Fall 2016 issue: click the link and there’s nothing there. “The Singing Tree” is the last entry in the Spring 2015 issue, which appears to have been the grand finale for this publication. On the Contributors page Shawn Goldberg tells readers that he’s living in Madrid. He lists his email address: I’m going to drop him a line, see if his email is still working, find out if he’s still over there, ask him what the fuck about his story.

A Legend Is Born by Calvin Celebuski

Random short fiction number 23.21.1, from Jersey Devil Press  — here’s the link.

That jazz drummer Papa Jo Jones was able to give birth through his penis is remarkable enough. But that his thousands of auto-regenerative spawn, each and every one of them, should have been jazz drummers? One might presume that Jones’s mutant progeny were clones, identical to the father and to each other, manifesting their shared genotype in identical phenotypic tendencies to strike flat surfaces rhythmically with sticks. More accurately, they were nearly identical: Papa Jo was known for keeping rhythm with the brushes on the high-hat cymbal, whereas Philly Joe Jones, his most famous dick-born son and evidently the only surviving one, was more of a traditionalist, a bass drum thumper. Even identical twins reared apart diverge from one another due to unique features of the environments they grow up in; during the heyday New York was widely recognized as a more progressive jazz town than Philadelphia.

The fact that Papa Jo gave birth through his penis suggests that spermatozoa were integral to his reproductive mechanism. Sperm aren’t clones of each other; each one-celled flagellant is a unique genomic configuration, a meiotically configured half-being that must merge with its complementary half-being, the ovum, in order to get the fetal mitotic apparatus up and running. No mention is made of Papa Jo having mated with women and absorbing their ova into himself; instead, his sperm must have paired off and mated with each other, each tossing into the pot its own half of the full 46-chromosome deck. Papa Jo’s babies must have been genetically comparable to two identical twins reproducing sexually — which of course is impossible because you can’t have a pair of identical twins where one is a boy and the other a girl.

That Papa Jo mated with himself — let’s call it onanogenesis — means that his progeny would have had two X chromosomes. Would this genetic imbalance, tilting them toward extreme masculinity, account for the inordinate level of violence they subsequently displayed? Or maybe it was it the genetic doubling down on Papa Jo’s own aggressive tendencies — Wiki’s assertion that “Jones was known for his irascible, combative temperament;” his threat to murder everyone in the Al Allen Big Band if they didn’t hire him as drummer.

Jazz is a demanding art form that relies on establishing a dynamic balance between cooperation and competition, each band member alternating between functioning as a component of a musically intertwined combo and stepping forward as a soloist. So too with jazz as a way of making a living: the player is part of the scene but is always looking to step up to a bigger stage when the opportunity presents itself. One might have expected the horde of gifted drummers that Papa Jo Jones squeezed out to have raised the bar for jazz performance in every city in America, setting standards for accompaniment and improvisation that might have transformed the national culture. Or they might have converged on the desire to be the top drummer in the top jazz outfit in the land, outcompeting each other on the way up the pyramid until only one man was left seated at the drum kit on the bandstand. But instead of sublimating their aggressions into artistic and economic competition, those monstrous percussive offspring literally killed each other off.

There is no evidence that the survivor, Philly Joe Jones, inherited his father’s remarkable reproductive ability. Perhaps he knew better than that. Or maybe he killed them all as soon as they came out of his nozzle, recognizing in them the competitive challenge to his supremacy they would eventually pose.

Geneticists and biochemists have sought, so far in vain, to exhume the remains of Papa Jo and Philly Joe Jones. Isolating the mutant genetic string could lead to revolutionary advances in scientific knowledge. But would such a discovery lead to evolutionary advances for the species, or even for a musical genre that seems destined to extinction? Not bloody likely.

Christmas Lights by Demian Entrekin

Random story 42.4.1, published in Sisyphushere’s the link.

I was flipping through a book, squat and thick, faded green cover — one of my father’s old university engineering texts, each thin page crammed with words, numbers, graphs, schematics. I was trying to decipher some diagram but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I scanned the facing page briefly, then looked back to the diagram. Now though it’s a paragraph of text — I must have erred in zeroing in on that part of the page where the diagram is positioned. I glance back again to the facing page: it seems to be laid out somewhat differently from when I’d just looked at it. Back to the page with the diagram: it too seems to have rearranged itself. I try to read a sentence but find it impossible to parse: is it the technical lingo that’s throwing me, or is it because I don’t have my reading glasses on? A few words start coming clear, but they don’t hang together meaningfully. Again I shift my focus; again the page contents seem to have rearranged themselves. I entertain another hypothesis: this is a dream. I start systematically shifting my glance, observing that the print on the pages also continues to shift. Probably a dream, I’m realizing.

And now, hovering between sleep and wakefulness, I begin to remember the long dream I’d had earlier. I was riding a commuter train, trying to get off at the stop, but the doors wouldn’t open. I was carrying a lot of stuff — a briefcase, maybe a suitcase — making it awkward for me to move through the full railway car. I encountered a couple standing near another exit. The doors won’t open, I told them; we’ve got to tell somebody, get them fixed. These two people looked at me with indifference. I scrambled back to the other door, the one from which I’d first tried to disembark. Open. I stepped out, set my stuff on the platform, climbed back aboard, ran to the other end of the car to alert the indifferent standing couple that I’d found a working exit. But now the train was starting up again, and I’d left my stuff on the platform. In my liminally conscious remembrance I’m wondering why the events in this train dream seemed to have taken so long, but that often happens in dreams, the stretching and compacting of duration.

Fully awake now, I remember having woken up at around 4 a.m. to pee, then lying in bed thinking about how I might respond on this website to the randomly assigned short fiction du jour. It’s a kind of Dickensian tale, the innocence of youth throttled by heavy-handed capitalism aided and abetted by the strong arm of the law. I’m on board with this story; it triggers an array of associations to the ecology and economy of homelessness. At the same time I’m wondering about the legalities and especially the logistics of the house roust. Wouldn’t the landlord find it more cost-effective to hire a locksmith to open the door rather than having the sheriff bust it down? Wouldn’t he be able to strike a better deal with the moving company if, after evicting the tenants, padlocking them out, and giving them a few days to pay the back rent as per due process, the landlord permitted the movers to transport the repoed apartment’s contents to a secure location, sort through it, and resell the more valuable stuff, instead of dumping it all at the curbside as a total loss?

Eventually I must have dozed back off, thinking not about the people in the story but about the door and the stuff. I begin to dream about leaving my own stuff on the outside of the train door. Then I dream about my father’s engineering textbook, idling on a bookcase in our house during my childhood and subject to incomprehension when on occasion I would pull it off the shelf and riffle through it. What happened to that book? I don’t remember handling it when I packed up the stuff in my parents’ house after they’d decided to stay in Florida year-round. Had my father purged the book during some prior consolidation, tossing it in the trashcan and setting it on the curbside for collection?

Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye by Richard Spilman

Random story 52.15.2, from Zone 3: here’s the link. Though I was able to find other published stories authored by Richard Spilman, he has no obvious presence on social media, so there’s no way I can l invite him to discuss his story here. As I noted on my recent Ursula LeGuin post, that might be just as well. If you find the post by googling yourself, rest assured: the invite stands; I’d love to talk about your story with you or anyone else who reads it.

In thinking about “Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye” I find myself decoupling the variables from the values assigned to them. What if he were black and she were white? Or, given the demographics of San Francisco, what if he were Asian and she were Latina? What if she wanted to leave and he wanted to stay? What if she had the high-paying job and he was the stay-at-home dad “two-stepping” his way through nursing school? What if they were both he, or both she? What if, instead of working in IT, he was a banker, or a pharma middle manager, or a dermatologist? What if, in taking the promotion in Raleigh, he’ll get paid less than what he’s making in San Francisco — which, based on what I hear, is how it tends to play out, employers being well aware of geographic cost-of-living differentials. What if the he was moving the other direction, from Raleigh to San Francisco? Then he probably would get a raise; then they would be moving to a locale where black-white interracial couples are probably less common. What if the goodbye sex wasn’t very good? What if, instead of being set in the now, this story took place in the 90s, or the 70s, or the 50s — would the setup have been different; or the development, or the outcome? What if, instead of hitting the brakes at the bottom of the hill, he had been hit by the trolley passing through the intersection? Who would be next in line for that big promotion in Raleigh?

 

Breadcrumb 398 by Olivia Mardwig

Randomly selected literary magazine number 8.15 is Breadcrumbs Mag, the most recent prose item being “Breadcrumb 398” by Olivia Mardwig. It’s flash, doesn’t say whether it’s fiction or not, but for present concerns a nonfiction counts as fiction.

It nearly came back to me on my morning walk, the novel in which the narrator witnesses the drowning death of an older brother. No wait, it was the mother, almost certainly a novel, recent, maybe the one by the Welsh woman who got on the map with an earlier novel that had “girl” in the title, suicide by drowning, the mother parks the car and just walks into the water with the kid still in the car, the kid then being sent off to live with an aunt, turns out the kid can see dead people. Maybe that’s not the one.

In any event, the great tragedy of his life being a terrible event that befalls not oneself but someone else, a tragedy that one watches from a safe distance without being able to do anything about it: isn’t this where the reader or viewer of tragic fiction is situated? I felt this loss personally, although I couldn’t tell you why. To induce in the audience a vicarious empathic identification with the character: isn’t that the storyteller’s dream?

Back then I was still too young to have a tragedy like that to share with Bill. Maybe that’s what tragedies are for: to have something interesting to share with acquaintances, something to write about in fictional narratives. In lives of relative privilege are losses deemed more meaningful than gains because they’re more rare? Then again, the old hippie’s tragedy wasn’t properly his own; it was his brother’s tragedy, carrying him down to the bottom of the sea, leaving the brother to spin his own vicarious version from the seashore, a story that might make him a more compelling character.

He said that if I were a real writer, I would write my story down. Now I’m picturing this old hippie at the Budapest hostel being the author’s writing teacher. Last night I had a dream, chronic rather than dramatic in its unfolding, that transported my dream self back in time into two vicariously experienced tragic intervals, separated in real historic time by decades but conflated in mimetic dreamtime into nightmarish overlap. I’d probably qualify as an old hippie, by provenance if not by practice and despite my closely cropped balding hair, but I wouldn’t dream of writing a fiction about my dream. Maybe I don’t qualify as a real writer.

Some days I think I might actually do it. Me too. But what if she already did? Could she have displaced her own tragedy onto the fictional character of an aging hippie randomly encountered at the Budapest hostel? Fiction writers have been known to play those sorts of tricks without going full-on autofictional, distancing yourself from yourself, vicariously identifying with yourself.